Multiplayer Party

Want a table at Belltown's newest hot spot? Bring a busload of your closest friends.

Early one Friday night, some friends and I approached the host station at Tavolata, a new Italian restaurant in Belltown. Dinner looked like a sure thing: There were still a few empty two-person booths flanking the walls, and the 30-foot table running along the center of the narrow room was completely bare. "I might be able to seat you," wavered the host, "but only if you'd promise to finish by 8." Out by 8? "I thought you only took reservations for parties of six or more." I said. True, she said. "But there's a party of 16 there, a party of 10 there, a party of 12 there." With its raw-cement walls and ultralate hours, two-month-old Tavolata has become the party place in party town. Hit the dim, East Berlin–chic restaurant at 9 on a Friday night, when the bar crowd obscures any sight of the open kitchen at back, and your eardrums will be caught in the crossfire of a hundred conversations. It's not for everyone, but those willing to dive in to the experience will find that Tavolata delivers much of what it promises: honest, well-prepared Italian food; a reasonable check; and good odds of chatting up whomever the host seats next to you. While the restaurant calls itself "authentic Italian," it's more idiomatically so, Italy being the new polar star that American fine dining is sailing by (take that, Escoffier). It's refined Italian à la Mario Batali, scrubbed of its old "ethnic food" identifiers and regional specificity. Ethan Stowell, chef-owner of the more eclectically oriented Union, says he opened Tavolata partly because he loves making pastas. Stowell's particular brand of Italian-ness means fewer ingredients, cleaner flavors, and more anchovies, offal, and bitter greens. All of which I can get behind. And all of which you're supposed to share. Some of Tavolata's first-course dishes are traditional antipasti, such as the affettato, a cutting board tiled with translucent slices of prosciutto, finocchiona, and dry-cured salamis, plus a couple of spoonfuls of Meyer lemon mostarda (compote), sweet and bitter and fragrant. Or freshly formed mozzarella balls, accompanied by a bracing arugula salad and toasts spread with artichoke purée, the bitter and the creamy joining together wonderfully. Other first-course dishes more closely resemble American small plates, like a bowl of papery-crusted, smooth-centered fried polenta nuggets (which looked and smelled like Tater Tots) meant to dip in a anchovy-garlic mayonnaise; or a tomino—a warmed round of goat's milk cheese—matched with a brightly dressed bundle of miner's lettuce and a smear of reduced balsamic vinegar. The menu morphs daily, but if there's an octopus salad—the creamy braised meat mixed with cannellini beans and a lemony, lemony vinaigrette—you should secure a bowl of it. I found Stowell's handmade pastas spectacular: Supple and golden, the al dente pasta soaked up flavor from the sauce but still left you something to chew on. Where meat is concerned I much prefer brawn over brains, but the agnolotti stuffed with mild veal brains, their mousselike texture resembling loosely scrambled eggs, were sublime. Ravioli plump with tangy ricotta were tossed in a simple butter sauce with artichoke hearts, asparagus, and parsley, simple and fresh. The meatier entrées come in portions big enough for two or three. I ordered the whole grilled branzino stuffed with parsley, thyme, and lemon slices, its skin impeccably cross-hatched from the grill. Served with fried potato coins and a sharply dressed green salad—meant, like a salsa, to be eaten, bite for bite, with the meat—the branzino was the perfect example of Italianesque style: There were no chichi flourishes on the plate. But the fish was so tender you almost wondered if it hadn't been poached first, and the skin was crisp from the direct heat, seasoned with salt, pepper, and smoke. Another high note followed the fish: a basket of lemon zeppole, grape-sized doughnuts fresh out of the oil, each one a lemon-scented poof of steam. With most of the wines priced under $35 a bottle (a rarity in Seattle) and checks averaging $40 a person, Tavolata left me with a sense of expectations met. Neither of my two meals there was perfect, but most of the flubs felt like new-restaurant jitters, not tragic flaws. Strozzapretti, a rolled pasta, came with a lamb ragù that had a marvelous meatiness to it, but the soupy broth could have been reduced a little more so that it clung to the noodles. Ricotta gnocchi, browned and crispy, hadn't been drained of excess oil before being tossed with a ka-pow combination of sautéed cauliflower and salty black olives. These were both small lapses of attention at the stove that kept good dishes from being great. The servers, too, hadn't yet mastered the logistics—figuring out the best way to cover a busy room or lean into the mass of bodies at the common table to clear plates and drop off drinks—but largely stayed on top of our orders. More important, they approached the table with a laid-back friendliness and had been trained in the grace notes of good service, such as offering tastes of unfamiliar wines. Tavolata's big-party-only reservations policy isn't just keeping walk-ins like me from getting a table; apparently, it's building community. Groups who'd normally dine as a three- or foursome are calling friends to bulk up to a six-top, Stowell says. Even now, a Tavolata e-vite may be whizzing through cyberspace toward you.

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